The trouble with mistlet.., p.14
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       The Trouble with Mistletoe, p.14

         Part #2 of Heartbreaker Bay series by Jill Shalvis
 

  would go next.

  An hour into it, he paused to pull out his vibrating phone. It was Sally finally calling him back with a FaceTime call. He answered and was treated to . . . a huge mouth. The skin around the mouth was puckered with age. The lips had been painted in red lipstick.

  “Hello?” the mouth said. “Keane? Goddamn newfangled phone,” she muttered. “Can’t hear a damn thing.”

  “Aunt Sally, I’m here,” he told her. “You settled in okay?”

  “What?”

  “You don’t have to hold the phone up to your mouth like that. You can just talk normal—”

  “Huh? What’s that? Speak up, boy.”

  Keane sighed. “I said you can just talk normal.”

  “I am talking normal,” she yelled, still holding the phone so close to her face that only her mouth showed. “I’m calling to talk to Petunia. Put her on the line.”

  “You want to talk to the cat.”

  “Do you have hearing problems? That’s what I said. Now put her on for me.”

  “Sure.” Keane moved into the kitchen, because that’s where Pita hung out most, near her food bowl. The food bowl was empty.

  No sign of Pita.

  “Hang on,” he said into the phone and then pressed it against his thigh to block video and sound. “Pita,” he called. “Pita, come.” He felt ridiculous. Cats didn’t “come.” Neither did the antichrist. “Cat,” he said. “Petunia?”

  Still nothing. He strode through the house and stilled in the dining room. Oh fuck, he thought, staring down at the hole in the floor. The air duct, without its grate, because it was on a sawhorse with some trim drying after being lacquered.

  He dropped to his knees and peered down the open vent, but couldn’t see a thing. “Pita?”

  There was a loaded silence, then a rustling, followed by a miserable-sounding “mew.”

  His heart stopped. “Okay, not funny. Get your fuzzy, furry ass back up here,” he demanded, still holding the phone tight to his thigh.

  This time the “mew” sounded fainter, like she’d moved further into the vent. He brought the phone back up. “Hey, Aunt Sally, I’ve got another call I have to take. I’ll call you right back, okay?”

  “Is there something wrong?” the red, wrinkled lips asked.

  “No worries,” Keane assured her and hung up. He retrieved Pita’s food bowl, refilled it, and then jangled the bowl above the open vent. “Hear that?” he called down the hole. “That’s your food. Come and get it.”

  Nothing. Not even a rustle this time.

  “Christ.” Keane got to his feet and strode into the next room, where he knew the venting system led to. He tore off that grate, flicked on the flashlight app from his phone and peered into the hole. “Pita?”

  More nothing.

  “Dammit, cat.” He turned off the flashlight and rubbed his temples. At a complete loss, he did the first thing that came to mind. He called the only person he knew that the cat actually liked.

  “Hello?” Willa answered, sounding soft and sleepy.

  “I woke you. I’m sorry.”

  “Keane?”

  “Yeah,” he said. “I’ve got a problem.”

  “Still?” She yawned. “Aren’t you supposed to call a doctor if that conditions persists for more than four hours?”

  He froze for a beat and then laughed. Pinching the bridge of his nose, he shook his head. “Not that kind of problem.” He paused. “And I’m pretty sure there’s no guy on earth who’d actually go to a doctor for that.”

  “Yet another reason why men die younger than women. What’s the problem, Keane?”

  “Pita.”

  “You have her today too?”

  “Yeah. My aunt had to go into a rehab facility with assisted living. While I was working, Pita went down a vent and either joined a rat compound or she’s just enjoying fucking with me like every other female I know, but I can no longer see or hear her.”

  Silence.

  “Willa?”

  “Your aunt had to go into a home?”

  Hadn’t he just said so? “Yes, and—”

  “And you’re holding on to Pita for her? Indefinitely?”

  “Well I was,” he said. “Now I’m pretty sure I’ve accidentally killed her.”

  “I’ll be right there.”

  Chapter 12

  #WheresTheBeef

  After Keane’s call, Willa slipped out of bed for the second time that morning. The first had been an hour ago at the desperate knock at her door.

  That had been Kylie. “Remember Vinnie?” her friend had asked, pulling the tiny puppy from her pocket. “My so-called pal never came back for him, can you believe it?” She kissed the top of the puppy’s head, which was bigger than his body. “I think she abandoned him, and me . . .”

  Oh boy. Willa looked into Vinnie’s warm puppy eyes and felt herself melt. “So what’s your plan?”

  “I’m keeping him,” Kylie said firmly. “He’ll be a Christmas present to myself. My problem is that I have to go to work. Is there any way you can help me today?”

  Which was how Willa had ended up back in bed cuddling a three-week-old puppy until Keane had called. Now she scooped Vinnie up, cuddling the tiny handful close. “We’ve got a search-and-rescue situation, buddy. You up for it?”

  Vinnie yawned bigger than his entire body, which wasn’t all that hard. Juggling the little guy, Willa ran around handling her morning routine as quickly as possible. She had to set Vinnie down to brush her teeth, which turned out to be a mistake because when she turned back around, she found him sitting proudly next to what looked like a pile of fresh Play-Doh. Except it wasn’t so much fresh as incredibly stinky.

  He was looking at her as if to say, It wasn’t me, nor was it me who just chewed the shoelace off your shoes. I have no idea who’d do something like that, especially given the poo situation; that’d just be mean.

  With a sigh, she cleaned up the mess and then pulled sweats on over her pj’s. She grabbed the baby bottle Kylie had left with her for Vinnie, who got very excited at the sight of it and began panting happily, short little legs bicycling in the air as if he could fly to the bottle.

  “In a sec,” she promised. She grabbed her bag and a jacket and ran out the door, ordering an Uber on her cell as she waited for the elevator.

  The car ride was a luxury she couldn’t quite afford but it was pouring rain and she had Vinnie, and Keane had sounded . . .

  Vulnerable.

  She’d have gone for that alone because . . . well, curiosity had killed the cat and all. But it wasn’t just nosiness that had her hurrying.

  She cared about Petunia, and more than that, she cared about him.

  “Not good,” she told the puppy as he finished his bottle, tucking him into her sweatshirt beneath her jacket to keep him warm. “Not good at all.”

  Sticking his head out the collar of her sweatshirt, Vinnie licked her chin. His eyes, bigger than his head, were warm and happy as he stared up at her in adoration.

  “Okay, so here’s how we’re going to play this,” she said. “When we get there, we’re not, repeat not, going to get attached to the hot, sexy guy that lives there, okay? It’s no use getting attached to someone who isn’t going to get attached back.”

  “Then why go to his house this early if you’re not going to get attached?” the Uber driver asked. “Didn’t your mother teach you better than that?”

  “Hey, no eavesdropping,” she said. “Or judging.”

  “How much you like this guy?” he asked, his gaze scanning her clothes from his rearview mirror. “Because maybe you want to dress nicer.”

  Said the guy in a grungy gray T-shirt and hair so wild and crazy it touched the roof of his car. “These are my favorite sweats,” she said.

  “But they’re not getting-laid sweats. They’re more like . . . birth control sweats.”

  She looked down at herself as they stopped in front of Keane’s building. Good thing she wasn’t worried about gett
ing laid.

  Wait . . . was she? Well, too late to worry about it now.

  “Leave me a good review?” the driver asked as she got out.

  Willa sighed. “Sure.”

  Keane had barely refrained from tearing down the wall—the new wall—between the living room and the dining room to get to Pita when he heard Willa’s knock.

  She stood there in the pouring rain, hood on her parka up.

  “Hey,” she said, clearly just out of bed and looking sexy adorable. “S&R at your service.”

  He knew how hard she worked, and that today was probably a rare day off for her, and yet she’d come when he’d called. Okay, so she was there for the cat and not him, but still, he felt pretty wowed by that.

  By her.

  It didn’t happen often in his world, help freely given like this with nothing expected in return, nothing to be held over his head later. And that meant a lot.

  He pulled her inside, getting her out of the rain, which was dripping off her.

  “You’re in a tool belt,” she said, staring at it.

  “Yeah.” Was he mistaken or had her eyes dilated. “Why?”

  She wet her lips and stared at the tool belt some more. “No reason.”

  He laughed softly. “You like the tool belt?”

  She flushed. “Well, it’s a cliché for a damn reason. They’re sort of . . . sexy.”

  “Good to know,” he said, biting back his smile. “And thanks for coming.”

  Willa pushed her hood back and met his gaze, her eyes heavy-lidded from what he assumed was sleep. Her silky hair was more than a little wild, flopping into her eyes, clinging to her jaw. He slid the jacket off of her in the hopes of keeping her dry. This left her in sweat bottoms that said SWAT up one thigh, rain boots, and a snug long-sleeved hoodie that clung to her curves and told him she wasn’t wearing a bra.

  His mouth went dry.

  From the hoodie pocket a little puppy head poked out. “Ruff!” he squeaked out so hard that his huge ears quivered.

  “Vinnie’s back,” she said of the palm-sized dog. “I’m babysitting.” She looked around. “Wow. This place is seriously just . . . wow.” She turned in a slow circle. “I meant to ask you, the molding—is that original woodwork?”

  “Original and restored.”

  “Gorgeous,” she said, walking through, her voice low and reverent. “Seriously, if this was my home, I’d never leave it.”

  Uncomfortable with the praise and yet feeling his chest swell with pride, he didn’t say anything. But it was his fantasy home too.

  “And you’re really going to flip it?” she asked, meeting his gaze.

  He shrugged. “That’s the plan. I sell everything I renovate. It’s my income.”

  “Right.” She nodded. “You don’t get attached to things, I get it. So where can I put Vinnie while we search for Petunia?”

  He drew a deep breath and walked her into the kitchen, the leather of his tool belt creaking as he moved, although he was pretty sure she wasn’t finding that so sexy at the moment.

  She set Vinnie up in the deep laundry sink, layering it with a soft blanket and then setting his special dog bed in there—a tissue box—with his water and a few toys. “Stay here and be a good boy,” she said. “And I’ll give you a treat.”

  “Does that apply to all the males in the room?” Keane asked.

  She sent him a long look.

  Okay, so no. Shaking his head at himself for even wishing for things that weren’t for him, he turned and walked into the dining room. “Here,” he said, crouching low at the vent. “She went in here.”

  Willa eyed the air duct. “Where does it lead?”

  “The den. I pulled the vent cover from that one too but she wouldn’t come out.” He wasn’t a guy who panicked. Ever. But he felt a knot in the center of his chest and was pretty sure he was pretty close to panic now.

  “Chances are that she can’t back out,” Willa said. “She’s a little . . . husky.” She whispered this last word, as if Pita could not only hear them but also understand English. “Which direction does the vent go?”

  He pointed to the left. “The next room over.”

  Willa moved to the wall between them and put her ear to it. “Petunia!” she called out and stilled, listening.

  There came a very faint “mew.”

  “Shit,” Keane said. “That’s it.” He rose to his feet and left the room, grabbing his hatchet from his large job tool box. He moved back to where he’d left Willa. “Stand back.”

  She turned and looked at him, her eyes going wide. “What the hell are you going to do with that?”

  Wasn’t it obvious? “Tear the wall down.”

  “Wow,” she said, and this time she definitely wasn’t impressed. “Hold off a second there, Paul Bunyan.” She went back to the second vent. Down on her hands and knees, she once again called out to Pita. “Petunia? I know you can’t turn around and go back, and that you’re in the dark and probably very unhappy about all of that, but you have to push forward, okay? You’ve got to come to me or the Big Bad Wolf here is going to huff and puff and chop this whole place down. And you should know, he’s going to rip into some beautiful molding and break my heart.”

  “Mew.”

  “That’s it,” she cooed, still on her hands and knees, her pert ass up in the air, her sweats stretched tight across her cheeks. “Come to me, baby.”

  He groaned. “Killing me.”

  Still in position, in fact one of his very favorite positions, she craned her neck and looked at him. “I’m trying to save your wall here.”

  “Carry on,” he said, his voice an octave lower than before.

  She stared at his mouth for a beat, swallowed hard, and then turned back to her task. “Petunia?”

  Nothing.

  Keane shifted closer and Willa pointed at him. “Don’t you even think about touching that wall.”

  His sexy tyrant.

  “I mean it,” she said.

  He had to laugh. “I hate to break this to you, Willa, but you’ve finally met someone as stubborn and obstinate as you. Pita’s not coming out of there, not even for your sweet nothings because—”

  Because nothing. There was a rustling and then the saddest looking lump of filthy fur stuck her head out of the duct, and Keane nearly dropped to his knees in relief. “I can’t believe she came out of there at just the sound of your voice.”

  “I’m good but not that good,” Willa said as Pita snatched something from her palm and ate it like she’d been gone for five days without food instead of an hour. “It’s a pupperoni treat. Works every time. Aw,” she said to the dirty cat. “You poor baby. That must have been so traumatic for you.”

  “Hugely,” Keane said, swiping his brow. “You should hold me.”

  She laughed and he found himself smiling at her like an idiot. “You always carry pupperoni treats in your pocket?”

 
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